Why “Neutral” Journalism is a Problem


“When Fox News first launched in 1996, their slogan was “Fair and Balanced.” Seeing this now would probably make a lot of people snicker given the reputation they have gained over the years. In 2008, they changed their slogan to “We Report, You Decide.” This slogan perfectly captures the problem with modern-day journalism.

We’re trained to believe that good journalism is “neutral” — it doesn’t try to tell people what to think or who to believe. But what if this approach to journalism is making it harder for us to understand the difference between right and wrong, good and evil?

Over time, journalism has taken a turn from presenting “the facts” and has started turning every news segment into a debate. Presenting both sides of the argument and letting the audience decide.

This is a very American way of thinking about things. It is a free country after all. Why can’t I decide my own opinion for myself?

Well when you get down to the brass tacks, there are many times that journalists use this approach in order to enable hate groups and conspiracy theorists to present their ideas to the mass public.

A perfect example of this is the anti-vaccination movement. For years, it has been proven time and time again that vaccines do not cause autism from expert scientists and doctors, yet what is the first thing that pops into many people’s heads when they think about vaccines? Autism.

Another example of this is with climate change. No matter how many numbers, statistics, climate experts, or natural disasters we have, millions of people will still believe that it isn’t climate change but just “bad weather.”

Why? Because time and time again this “both sides of the argument” excuse has been used to get conspiracy theorists ideas to the masses. It makes it harder for audiences to differentiate good and bad information, and may ultimately normalize extreme and even hateful political positions.

They know they are wrong. They know that they cannot win an argument, but they are thrilled to be there because millions of people have just heard them say these outrageous claims. The seed has been planted in their minds. They already won simply by being invited to the conversation.

But, that is the easy part of my argument. It is easy to say that journalism should be about facts and that neutrality gets in the way of that.

But, journalism is not just about facts. It is about justice. It is about morality. Differentiating good from evil.

When was the last time you turned on the TV and saw an 8 person debate about whether or not interracial marriage was allowed? When was the last time you opened up a newspaper and saw an article about the pros and cons of allowing desegregated schools? Or whether or not gay people should be put in jail? It’s not like there isn’t a debate about these things. Approximately 20% of Americans still think that interracial marriage is wrong! But, at some point news cycles realized that these arguments are unjust and immoral to even give airtime to. By having the debate, by allowing people to “decide for themselves” violated some core principle of good journalism.

It is the right call, but it has nothing to do with facts or objectivity. It has everything to do with bias. Judgment. With the journalist’s sense of right and wrong.

Journalists make calls like this all the time. When writing a piece, is the headline about the baker’s religious beliefs, or the gay couple’s humiliation? Do you use a picture of a black kid’s mugshot when he is killed by a police officer or his senior yearbook photo? Do you talk in your story about how the boy who sexually assaulted a girl on campus’ reputation is ruined or talk about the trauma of the victim?

You might have an answer to these questions. I think I do too, but the purpose is that none of those answers have anything to do with facts. There is no neutral way to answer those questions.

In 2009, NPR was told not to use the word “torture” when describing waterboarding and that using the word was too “socially and politically charged” to be used on a neutral journalistic platform. This January, NBC was told not to use the word “racist” when describing Steve King’s White Nationalist comments, claiming to tell them to say things like “what some people would call racist.”

Every single night when you turn on the TV or pull out the evening newspaper, we are debating the humanity of LGBT people, immigrants,  and Muslims. You can call that journalism a lot of things, but you can’t call it neutral.

Refusing to name evil for what it is is not a neutral act. Treating racism, sexism, xenophobia, or homophobia as “one side of a political debate” is not a neutral act. It is a choice that actively aids those who want to make hate and bigotry seem normal and that those are reasonable positions to hold.

I am a gatekeeper. All journalists are. We decide what is newsworthy, what needs to be talked about and told to a national audience. It is the reason why sex trafficking in Africa or the water crisis in Flint, Michigan isn’t talked about. As a collective, journalists have decided that it is not newsworthy.

No matter how clear or objective your view is, you still have to decide where you are going to point the camera.